At last week’s Senior Speak-Off, the annual contest to choose a student Commencement speaker, one Swarthmore student took the initiative to inform students of an ostensibly egregious ethical decision recently made by Swarthmore College: to grant former Bush administration official and World Bank President Robert Zoellick ’75 an honorary degree at this June’s graduation. Calling Zoellick an “architect of the Iraq War,” and a “war criminal” who did not share “Swarthmore values,” the student joined others in calling for seniors to take action against Zoellick’s graduation appearance in the name of the Iraq War dead. This week, a Facebook event, which also refers to Zoellick as “one of the major architects and strongest proponents of the Iraq war,” was created to discuss how students might do so.
The outcry would be appropriate, even courageous, were it not for one troubling detail: Robert Zoellick had nothing to do with the Iraq War. As George W. Bush’s Trade Representative, Zoellick spent the years in which the Iraq invasion was conceived and executed negotiating the Central American Free Trade Agreement and haggling with European trade partners over the details of genetically modified crop standards. These are hardly the pastimes of an international criminal. When Zoellick migrated to the State Department in 2005, his work focused on laudable efforts to responsibly engage a rising China and marshal international support to confront the Darfur genocide. Tellingly, Bob Woodward’s three-volume account of the Bush Administration’s handling of the Afghan and Iraq Wars mentions Zoellick not one time.
In holding him responsible for the Iraq War, Zoellick’s campus critics point to his signature on a 1998 letter to Bill Clinton calling for a policy against Saddam Hussein that displayed, in the short term, “a willingness to undertake military action,” and ultimately removed Saddam Hussein from power. While it is easy in retrospect to attribute importance to the letter, as it bears the signature of Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, the neo-con duo who actually orchestrated the invasion, Zoellick’s signature hardly renders him responsible for the Iraq War as executed in 2003, with its reckless disregard for multilateral support, post-invasion planning, or preservation of civilian life.
Nor is implicating Zoellick because of his privileged position as an advisor to the George W. Bush 2000 Presidential Campaign fair— especially given the infamously isolationist position Bush took in that year. Holding Zoellick responsible for the particulars of the war, any individual who ever advocated intervention in Iraq, or anyone whom ever served in the Bush Administration, eschews the constructive, nuanced engagement with historical fact that is essential to meaningful political protest.
Like many Swarthmore students, we strongly believe in the importance of such protest. Growing up twenty minutes from the West Point Military Academy, one of the co-authors participated in numerous Commencement protests at which Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and Vice President Dick Cheney spoke in support of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unlike the suggested Zoellick protest, those had a clear, concise political purpose: to demonstrate to those who had crafted the Iraq War, and to the young men who were being asked to carry it out, that a significant portion of the general public saw through the moral and strategic errors of the War. Decisive political protest has clear targets and aims.
So if any of the actual architects of the war –Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, or Deputy Wolfowitz– were being honored at our graduation, we would be happy to protest. These men are responsible for the loss of nearly 4,500 American and perhaps as many as 1 million Iraqi civilian lives, as well as America’s legitimate claim to global leadership.Robert Zoellick is not.
Many who have advocated demonstration will surely shrug their shoulders: as an architect of CAFTA, lifelong advocate of free trade, and former head of the World Bank, Zoellick has surely not earned the sympathy of Swarthmore’s anti-neoliberal activists. But these are not the criticisms that have been leveled by Zoellick’s campus detractors, and with good reason. Some acts so malign our common humanity that institutions like Swarthmore College have a responsibility to condemn them. Purposefully misleading the American public into war is one. Running the World Bank hardly qualifies. While many Swarthmore students may disagree with neoliberal economic governance, Swarthmore is an ethical and intellectual community, not a political one. Zoellick’s campus critics have skirted this fact by tarnishing him with responsibility for the undeniably unjust invasion of Iraq, instead of engaging with what is actually a complex and nuanced record.
We can think of nothing less in line with “Swarthmore values” than this.
Op-Ed submitted by Sam Sussman ‘13 and Lorand Laskai ‘13, the co-editors of Left of Liberal, an annual political publication